Belfast Project (Boston College tapes): “an invitation to people to engage in deep moral reflection on the consequences of war and political violence”

The topic of the Belfast Project – an oral history of republican and loyalist paramilitaries that is archived in the Burns Library at Boston College – is one that Slugger O’Toole posters have been tracking for some time.

Anthony McIntyre twitter profileTaking a step back from the latest developments to look at the project as a whole, and exploring beyond the normal 2-3 minute media soundbite, I spoke to Anthony McIntyre (who conducted many of the republican interviews) about the original purpose of the project, the subpoena requesting access to Brendan Hughes’ and Dolours Price’s contribution (later extended to include “any and all interviews containing information about the abduction and death of Mrs Jean McConville”) and the resulting appeals in the US and UK courts.

You can listen to the whole edited interview (download as MP3). The major quotes below are labelled with the time [minutes:seconds] to allow you to just to that point in the interview.

[We were] starting out on a journey of bringing voices in to the overall historical narrative. I have a view of history – given that I’ve done some historical training and have an interest in it – I have a view of history that one history becomes dominant to the extent that it manages to suppress or marginalise another. Therefore I think it is very important to have as many voices in [a] historical narrative. It adds more colour, complexity, the shading to the tapestry that is history.

Over the course of decades we have been moving history away from the kings and queens, the generals and prime ministers, the politicians and judges. We’ve been getting the history of the subjects rather than their ruler, the prisoners rather than their jailers, the voter rather than the voted. I’ve always thought that it was very important to get voices out that are different from what the norm is.

Twenty six republicans were interviewed covering “all manner of republicanism”. Anthony McIntyre says he “interviewed people primarily for their knowledge of republicanism and not for their gripes or their animosity”. With a “criterion of confidentiality” to protect the project so interviewees wouldn’t blurt out about their participation, he says it was “difficult to get as many Sinn Féin people as I would have liked to have got”. However, whenever the archive comes out “people will be pleasantly surprised at the range of views enlisted”. (In contrast the UVF gave approval for their members’ involvement in the project.)

Ed Moloney’s book Voices from the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland was published after the death of republican Brendan Hughes and loyalist David Ervine. I asked Anthony McIntyre whether this was intended to be the pattern following other contributors deaths. [04:07]

Brendan Hughes had insisted while he was alive that he wanted his interviews published then. Now that would have seriously jeopardised the project, I thought. So we had to persuade him to hold his wish and we promised him that at some point we would do our utmost to get his story out there … And then Boston College in the interests of balance – and also to promote their own image of being a mediator/bridge-builder in what they liked to refer to as the two sides in the northern conflict – it was their idea to publish the David Ervine narrative as well.

So if there wasn’t to be a succession of books, how did Anthony McIntyre imagine the oral history archive would be used and released? [07:16]

It’s safe enough to say now that some of the people who have been interviewed for the project are dead … Simply because a person dies does not mean – nor never meant – that their material was going to be published in book form. Ed [Moloney] was involved, independent of myself, in negotiations with Boston College – shortly before the subpoena was issued – for the conditions whereby people would have access to the interviews upon the death of people. He was determined to ensure that it would be for a bona fide research exercise that people could not simply walk in and say well let’s have a look at it.

There were discussions about whether the archive should be digitised, published online in transcript form, but “no hard and fast rules” had been agreed. [08:30]

But there’s no point in gathering an oral history if at some point it is not made available to the public. This is the whole point of doing it … It was a truth recovery process and we were trying to bring as much truth and honesty to the republican end of the war narrative as was possible. There was no point bringing out this truth if people weren’t going to hear it at some point.

The stability of the Belfast Project changed in March 2011 whenever the British Government (on behalf of the PSNI) requested help from the US Department of Justice to access the archive. Anthony McIntyre explained his view of the timeline and the argument in Ed Moloney’s affidavits suggesting that catalyst for this action was a report by Allison Morris in the Irish News based on an interview with Dolours Price, followed three days later by a more detailed report by Ciaran Barnes in the Sunday Life. [10:52]

Anthony McIntyre described his disappointment with Boston College’s initial legal reaction to the subpoena and the subsequent action and appeals lodged by himself and Ed Moloney. They have applied to have the case heard in the Supreme Court and “one of the justices put a stay on any handover of the archive until the Supreme Court make a decision on hearing the case”. And recently

… Boston College has appealed to the First Circuit Court to drop the case given that Dolours Price has unfortunately died. They said that the whole issue is now moot and that there should be no further action.

Anthony McIltyre speculated about who wants the information and for what purpose. [18:59]

The PSNI are certainly pushing for this with a vigour and it seems to go the whole way up. It may have bypassed the NIO at the start and then was handled by the Home Office. But certainly between the PSNI and the Home Office – and I imagine the NIO by this stage – are all on board and determined to get this material.

Are they risking so much good will, are they risking annoying the academic establishment just for the sake of having a read of what is there when it will come out eventually? Or do they want it for prosecutions.

I believe they want it for prosecutions and I believe that they also want it for the purposes of – some of the elements anyway want it – for the purposes of embarrassing [Gerry] Adams who does seem to be under pressure these days in relation to many questions that take us back to the past …

You can never really move away from the conflict while people who were central to the past remain central to the present. And I think this sort of thing is always going to dog us. For that reason I think maybe had Mr Adams and company not been around the determination to get these archives would not have been as great as it is.

At various points in the interview, Anthony McIntyre points out that he does not control the archive: the completed interviews rest under the control of Boston College.

Destroying the archive would not be as drastic as “the PSNI getting their hands on it [early] and turning it into evidence”. [20:26]

The task of researcher is to protect those who participated in the research from any harmful effects. That’s your first objective. That’s the ethical imperative. After that the interviews don’t really matter in comparison to the welfare of the interviewees.

I asked Anthony McIntyre whether he wished the project had been undertaken with a different college or carried out under different rules? [23:13]

I have stated on record before I regret that I got involved in it simply because of the harmful effects it could have on other people. The project is eminently defensible. It was simply done with the wrong university. Both ourselves and the loyalists relied on the word of the university that had a law school, that was prestigious and was well regarded in Ireland, that had set up its stall in terms of having helped the peace process. We relied on that university with its array of lawyers, the wealth to have done the homework for us. Turned out that it hadn’t and we have had to pay a terrible price for that. So in that sense, I regret getting involved with Boston College. Yes, very much so. It was on American soil and we would have never done it had somebody had said put it in Queen’s. We wouldn’t have felt that it was safe. Boston College led us to believe it was absolutely safe in an American university. Unfortunately we fell for it and unfortunately for our research participants, we believed Boston College and we’re now paying the price.

A few hours before the interview, Senator John Kerry was approved by the US Senate as the next Secretary of State. He has subsequently been sworn in as America’s top foreign policy official.

An alumus of Boston College, John Kerry wrote in January 2012 to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to “to work with the British authorities to reconsider the path they have chosen and revoke their request” in light of “the impact that it may have on the continued success of the Northern Ireland peace process” as well as “implications for the confidentiality of other research projects of this nature”.

Now that John Kerry is sitting behind the Secretary of State desk, does his previous intervention offer the researchers hope? [24:37]

He will be reminded about it. Then we move into realpolitik. Then we will really see what happens, just how strong the British desire is at the top to get this. If John Kerry allows this to be handed over then we know that the opposition he faced to his motion to quash was very, very strong and he didn’t feel that as a diplomat he could resist it.

He added:

I do have a view that one of the motives – I can’t stand over this obviously, because we never know these things – but one of the motives is that the British want something strong to bargain with while Sinn Féin and others continue to shout about the past in this one-eyed game of truth and recrimination that they sometimes call truth and reconciliation.

Truth here is we want to tell the truth about you but we don’t want to hear your truth about us. And I think that with Sinn Féin demanding the likes of prosecutions of the soldiers in Bloody Sunday and saying that any soldiers convicted will not be afforded the two year maximum jail term, I think the British state are going to make it very clear that they too have a card to play here and that if the past isn’t addressed in a proper way puts it to rest then there’s trouble for all. And we’re caught in the middle. That’s my view and how sustainable it is? I’m certainly open to persuasion on it.

If the subpoena is blocked and the interviews are released to academics and ultimately the public, in ten or twenty years time what does Anthony McIntyre think the public will have learnt from the archive? [28:05]

Without revealing anything in the interviews, I do not think that people will come away with the view that war is something that should be glorified or conflict is something that should be glorified.

People talk at times about this archive as if it is some sort of true detective novel and they’re all waiting to get it so they can look from one page to the next [to see] the gory details.

This project was probably at its root an invitation to people to engage in deep moral reflection on the consequences of war and political violence. That’s probably the most important point about it. How people who saw conflict, were involved in conflict, who experienced conflict, how those people came to see it. How they actually seen it at the time and how they’ve come to see it later in life.

I think there are great lessons to be learnt from that. It is always important to ask people to ethically reflect on the actions that they have been involved in. It always serves as a means to help protect future generations from going down the same path. We very much have to understand why people who would normally run about a life like yourself or your next door neighbour end up coming involved in serious political violence.

You can follow developments at the Boston College Subpoena News website and catch Anthony McIntyre’s blogging at The Pensive Quill.

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  • Damian O’Loan

    I’ve mostly been informed by two points of view on the subject of this archive. One is Anthony McIntyre and the other here:

    Briefly and I hope accurately, it states that the PSNI has an obligation to pursue lines of evidence based on, among other things, victims’ right to justice. There being no exemptions to the law for academics or this project, it follows that the material should be made available in the search for evidence.

    I would extend the logic to say that would be in the search for prosecutions, as Anthony himself suggests, that being the right and proper role of a police force under the rule of law.

    What’s interesting is that I’ve never heard Anthony McIntyre challenge this. His opposition is based on an increased threat to his life that comes not from, presumably, mainstream Republicanism. I’d be interested in his view of how an effective police force should proceed in such a circumstance and what are reasonable expectations for victims to hold regarding the police.

    Great post and great interview, as ever.

  • > the PSNI has an obligation to pursue lines of evidence

    I’m not going to put words into Anthony McIntyre’s mouth, but I would note that other than a suspicion derived from the a couple of newspaper articles that Dolours Price might have contributed to the oral history project, the subpoena (certainly the second one) feels very like a fishing exercise to dangle a hook to see if there might be any evidence.

    In the case of Dolours Price, the PSNI could have asked her questions directly. She wasn’t always in Dublin and was definitely in Newry at times when the PSNI could have pursued a line of inquiry. But they didn’t.

    So it seems inconsistent to ask for interviews that may or may not have any evidential value in court rather than approaching real live people.

    The News Letter does suggest that the US Judge found some mentions of Jean McConville’s dreadful disappearance in a handful of interviews:

    In his ruling, Judge William G Young said: “…only six interviewees even mention the disappearance of Jean McConville that constitutes the target of the subpoena.

    “One interviewee provides information responsive to the subpoena. Another proffers information that, if broadly read, is responsive to the subpoena.

    “Three others make passing mention of the incident, two only in response to leading questions. It is impossible to discern whether these three are commenting from personal knowledge, from hearsay, or are merely repeating local folklore.

    “In context, the sixth interviewee does nothing more than express personal opinion on public disclosures made years after the incident.

    “The court concludes that the full series of interviews of the five interviewees first mentioned above must be disclosed and that the interview with the sixth need not be produced

    If portions of five or six interviews were released to the PSNI one possibility might be that they’d confirm some facts or suppositions they’d already established, but not provide any new leads. Yet the names of the individuals interviewed – previously entirely secret – would be more widely known, potentially leading to a certain amount of discomfort within different factions of the republican community over who said what.

    On the other hand, there might be new leads – not great evidence to rely on in court – that would lead to firm evidence being gathered in follow-up exercises.

    There are a lot of ‘if’ statements on all sides of this. And a lot of different justices to balance or ignore.

  • forthman

    Could dissident ‘republican’, Anthony McIntyre get me on those tapes? Come on please! I’ll do what the rest of them did and spoof the lot. Sure why not? Do as much damage I can to people I don’t like. I don’t care. I’ll be dead! I’m sort of working on my tape now as it happens. Its juicy! It tells how a prominent poster on ‘slugger’, confessed to me his MI5 role while performing sex acts in a public toilet!! I’ll name and shame him! Ahem, only after my death of course!!

    This Boston tape thing is complete bulls**t! You will struggle to find a more transparent attempt to ‘get Adams’, as this. Its crude, and almost laughable, unless of course you live in right wing British/Irish media world. The sight of the unreconstructed political mouthpieces, many of whom masquerade as ‘journalists’, foaming at the mouth at the prospect of finally fulfilling their remit to ‘get Adams’, is a very unpleasant and ultimately doomed spectacle.

    I suppose it keeps you in a job lads!!

  • Damian O’Loan

    Fair points Alan. I think we’re forced to speculate, as helpful as the Judge’s comments are.

    Among other stories, it does serve as a reminder that Republicanism needs to be vocal on the issue of physical threats against those outside the mainstream, or who are seen to have betrayed their cause. It’s a question of gaining the trust of Unionism if nothing else.

    It also leaves the question of whether such an enterprise should be legally possible. The promised conditions seem tantamount to amnesty, which is not something I’d favour, as interesting as the idea sounds in terms of a fair historical record.

  • tacapall

    I know loads of ex prisoners, ex volunteers and loads of wannabees who for the worse of drink and drugs are in a world of their own when it comes to remembering the past. Telling stories of bravado and sorrow that never happened or did happen but some facts were imagined or for the price of a pint would tell you in the nudge nudge wink wink fashion who done what and where but its all kept secret only they know. I dont mean any disrespect to anyone but if people could be stigmatised or arrested, even imprisoned on the basis of evidence like that then we’re heading for an Alice in Wonderland approach to justice.

  • carl marks

    I know loads of ex prisoners, ex volunteers and loads of wannabees who for the worse of drink and drugs are in a world of their own when it comes to remembering the past.
    the bars are full of them,
    One night in the star club in Ardoyne a fine fellow told me of his involment in a incident that took place in the late seventies, after doing the sums it was pointed out to him that he would have six years old when it happened.

  • tacapall

    I have no doubt Carl incidents like that are replicated all over the six counties, loyalist areas too I would imagine it just depends what drinking den you frequent. Its interesting some people demand that Adams be stigmatised with the accusations of former comrades but yet ignore or dismiss the accusations of John Weir as deluded.

  • carl marks

    While I have strong doubts about Adams denials I am amused by those who apply different levels of proof to him as they apply to others they approve of.
    I believe that when the tapes are published all that will come out is hearsay; of course there are those who will believe any bad thing about Adams and will be quite willing to accept whatever comes out as proof of whatever they want it to be proof of.
    However the same people when you mention a former leading figure in the UDA Frank McCoubrey who recently joined the DUP the demand is made to prove he was in the UDA and they point to the fact that he was never found guilty of membership as proof of his innocence. Strangely while the same facts apply to Adams he is not allowed the luxury of innocent till proven guilty.
    One gets used to such double standards, just lately on another thread I was told that when loyalists call me a fenian (with or without the traditional swear words fore and aft) I should not get insulted as no offence is meant, this from people who go ballistic when they see a street sign in Irish.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Well done Taca and Carl for dragging in the usual whatabboutery, yous are getting more like Waldorf and Statler everyday.

    Adams is the leader of the 2nd Largest Party in NI and 4th Largest in RoI, he was also a leading figure in the IRA throughout the troubles. He also seems to be good a spinning stories, which are not the most relieble so maybe you have a point about the reliabilty of Republican Testimonies, espically when you consider the whole campaign was a lie.

    Have always found McIntyre an interesting read, certainly more “honest” than the usual SF stooges, so going by what he says we shall have disturbing but not very enlightening reading in years to come.

  • tacapall

    DR what whataboutery are you talking about, the John Weir case ? What is your problem with drawing comparisons, John Weir was an ex RUC officer a person like yourself would trust this type of persons word, his testimony alleges other senior RUC officers were involved in arming loyalist paramilitaries and one of those senior officers murders is the subject of the Smithwick inquiry.

    Its interesting you can take the word of former IRA prisoners as fact but engage in deflection or turn a blind eye to allegations that a murdered senior RUC officer was involved in activities that you yourself would argue was terrorism.

  • Drumlins Rock

    and relevance to the Boston tapes is?

  • sonofstrongbow

    Carl Marks,

    I note you are still peddling the lie that I said that loyalists use of ‘Fenian’ was not meant to be an insult. What I did in fact do was pose the question why a nationalist would feel insulted by being called a Fenian given that organisations involvement in militant Irish nationalism.

    Try reading the post again. It might help if you trace out the words with your finger and mouth the words silently as you go.

    One never knows understanding may dawn, although I don’t hold out that much hope.

  • tacapall

    The relevance is the double standards. DR I have no more love for Adams as you have but hearsay works both ways, if you accept whats on those Boston tapes as truth then John Weirs testimony must also be accepted as truth, as would RUC officer Johnston Browns description of having to allow loyalist paramilitaries in Mount Vernon a free reign to murder at will.